History of the Church of the Nazarene

Nazarene churches were founded on Wesleyan, Holiness tradition

Nazarene Churches
John Wesley (1703-1791). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Nazarene church history traces back to the holiness movement and the preaching of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who advocated for the doctrine of entire sanctification.

Church of the Nazarene

  • Also Known As: Nazarene Church; Nazarenes.
  • Known For: Church of the Nazarene is a Protestant Christian denomination based in the Wesleyan, Holiness tradition.
  • Founders: John Wesley; P. F. Bresee; C. B. Jernigan; C. W. Ruth.
  • Founding: October 13, 1908, in Pilot Point, Texas, USA.
  • Headquarters: Lenexa, Kansas, USA.
  • Membership: 2.5 million members, in more than 30,000 congregations, in 162 areas of the world.
  • Leadership: Gary Hartke, General Secretary; William Sawyer, Chief Administrative Officer/Board of General Superintendents' Chief of Staff; Keith Cox, General Treasurer; Verne Ward; Global Missions Director.
  • Mission Statement: “The mission of the Church of the Nazarene is to make Christlike disciples in the nations.”

Wesley, his brother Charles, and George Whitefield began an Evangelical Revival in England in the mid-1700s and then carried it to the American colonies, where Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards were key leaders in the First Great Awakening.

George Whitefield preaching outdoors
George Whitefield preaching outdoors. John Collet / Getty Images

Wesley Lays the Foundation

John Wesley laid down three theological principles that would eventually become the base for the Church of the Nazarene.

First, Wesley taught regeneration by grace through faith. Second, he preached that the Holy Spirit witnesses to individuals, assuring them of God's grace. Third, he instituted the unique doctrine of entire sanctification.

Wesley believed that Christians can achieve spiritual perfection, or entire sanctification, as he put it, by grace through faith. This was not salvation by works or earned merit but a gift of "perfection" from God.

Holiness Revival Spreads

The notion of Holiness, or entire sanctification, was promoted by Phoebe Palmer in New York City in the mid-1800s. Soon other Christian denominations took up the teaching. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers came on board.

Following the Civil War, the National Holiness Association began spreading the message throughout the United States in camp meetings. A Holiness press fanned the flames with thousands of tracts and books on the subject.

By the 1880s, new churches began to appear based on Holiness. The squalid conditions in American cities spawned urban missions, rescue homes and independent churches based on Holiness. The Holiness Movement also influenced established churches such as Mennonites and Brethren. Holiness associations began to unite.

Nazarene Churches Organized

The Church of the Nazarene began to organize in 1895 in Los Angeles, California, based on the doctrine of entire sanctification. Founders included Phineas F. Bresee, D.D., C. B. Jernigan, C. W. Ruth, Joseph P. Widney, M.D., Alice P. Baldwin, Leslie F. Gay, W.S. and Lucy P. Knott, C.E. McKee, and about 100 others.

Dr. Phineas F. Bresee (1838 - 1915)
Dr. Phineas F. Bresee (1838 - 1915); Founder and Organizer of the Church of the Nazarene.  Public Domain

These early believers felt that the term "Nazarene" embodied Jesus Christ's simple lifestyle and service to the poor. They rejected ornate, elegant houses of worship as reflecting the spirit of the world. Instead, they felt their money was better spent on saving souls and providing relief for the needy.

In those early years, the Church of the Nazarene spread up and down the West Coast and eastward as far as Illinois.

The Association of Pentecostal Churches of America, The Holiness Church of Christ, and the Church of the Nazarene convened in Chicago in 1907. The result was a merger with a new name: The Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene.

By 1908, called the "year of uniting," several more Holiness Associations joined the Nazarenes. Today, Nazarene Churches claim October 13, 1908, at the Second General Assembly held at Pilot Point, Texas as the denomination's official date of founding.

In 1919, the General Assembly changed the name to the Church of the Nazarene because of new meanings people associated with the term "Pentecostal."

Through the years, other groups united with the Nazarene Churches: The Pentecostal Mission, 1915; Pentecostal Church of Scotland, 1915; Laymen's Holiness Association, 1922; Hephzibah Faith Missionary Association, 1950; International Holiness Mission, 1952; Calvary Holiness Church, 1955; Gospel Workers Church of Canada, 1958; and Church of the Nazarene in Nigeria, 1988.

Missionary Work of the Nazarene Churches

Throughout its history, missionary work has taken a high priority in the Church of the Nazarene. Early work was done in the Cape Verde Islands, India, Japan, South Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The group expanded into Australia and the South Pacific in 1945, then into continental Europe in 1948. Compassionate ministry and famine relief have been hallmarks of the organization from its beginning.

Education is another key element in the Church of the Nazarene. Today Nazarenes support graduate seminaries in the United States and Philippines; liberal arts schools in the U.S., Africa, and Korea; a junior college in Japan; nursing schools in India and Papua New Guinea; and more than 40 Bible and theological schools throughout the world.